Read on for an exclusive extract from The Fall by Evie Hunter
‘Lauren Miller was released from prison this morning.’
At last! Jeff Williams leant back in his expensive leather chair, hiding his elated reaction behind the casual elevation of one eyebrow. ‘It’s thoughtful of you to let me know, Inspector.’
‘All part of the service, sir.’
‘Well, it’s appreciated.’ Jeff tilted his head, unsure why the inspector had bothered to stop by and break the news in person. ‘Actually, I thought it was another two weeks before she was due out.’
‘A combination of overcrowding and the interest that the press continue to take in her case worked in her favour. She was released from East Sutton Park first thing today into her mother’s care.’
‘Everyone wants to know what happened to the money she stole, I suppose,’ Jeff said pensively.
‘She’s a good-looking girl from a privileged background who wanted for nothing, so that makes her newsworthy. No one’s managed to figure out what made her throw a promising career away when she must have known she’d be caught insider trading eventually.’
Jeff nodded, hoping there was nothing sinister behind Read’s shrewd observations.
‘Had any further thoughts on that one, sir?’
‘None whatsoever, Inspector, and believe me, I’ve wasted a lot of hours mulling it over.’ Jeff stood up, turned his back on the inspector, and stared out of the triple-glazed, tinted windows that protected his privileged eyrie from any direct contact with the hoi polloi crowding the polluted city streets several storeys below. ‘As you well know, her actions had major ramifications for this firm and we’re still under the regulators’ spotlight.’
‘Her accusations about an affair with you and her initial insistence that she was acting on your orders when she diverted that money can’t have made your life any easier.’
‘Well, yes, but she soon stopped making those silly claims when she realised no one believed a word of it.’ He expelled a prolonged sigh. ‘Even so, it was a bitter pill for me to swallow after everything I tried to do for her.’
‘I’m sure it must have been.’
Jeff adopted a suitably avuncular expression. ‘I thought the girl had talent, you see. She certainly had all the right qualifications to survive in this jungle, plus enthusiasm, a positive attitude, and a willingness to put in all the hours God sent.’
‘She couldn’t have had much of a social life, not if she worked so hard.’
‘I wouldn’t know about that. As I told you at the time, our relationship was strictly professional.’
‘Ah, yes, so you did.’
‘I tried to encourage her by offering her a guiding hand.’ Jeff worried that he’d over-justified himself and so shut his mouth, making do with a self-deprecating shrug. ‘Much good it did me.’
‘All behind you now, sir. I just wanted to let you know that she’s out. As a condition of her probation, she isn’t allowed to contact you or your family. If she tries to, just let me know.’ Read slid his card across the smooth marble surface of Jeff’s desk. ‘She’ll be straight back inside to serve out the rest of her sentence if she does anything daft like that.’
‘Thank you, Inspector, that’s very reassuring.’ Jeff placed a hand on Read’s shoulder as he led the way across the wide expanse of thick carpet towards his office door. ‘But Lauren was never silly, you know, far from it, so I don’t anticipate that I’ll hear from her.’ Jeff injected a casual note into his tone. ‘She’ll be living with her parents now, I suppose.’
‘I’m not at liberty to reveal her whereabouts, sir. This protection thing works both ways, even though she now has a record.’ Read paused, his hand on the doorknob, his eyes raking Jeff’s face in a disconcertingly speculative manner. ‘Anyway, why are you so interested in where she’s living?’
‘Oh, no reason.’ Jeff rapidly backpedalled. ‘It’s just that in spite of everything she’s done, I still feel a modicum of sympathy for the girl. I obviously overestimated her talents and put too much pressure on her. It’s the only explanation I’ve been able to come up with for what she did, so I feel partly to blame.’ He lifted his shoulders. ‘I wouldn’t like to think of her out there all on her own.’
‘You don’t need to worry about that. The probation service will make sure she’s looked after.’
‘Ah, I see. Well, that’s all right, then.’
‘Good day to you, sir.’
‘Good day, Inspector, and thanks for dropping by.’
Jeff closed the door behind his visitor, crossed back to his desk, and returned his attention to the view, deep in thought. At last she was out, and he’d be able to get his hands on the money he so badly needed. His money. He’d get his hands on Lauren, too, while he was at it and give her a mercy shag for old time’s sake. She was the best he’d ever had – she’d ruined him for all the rest – so she owed him at least that much. He picked up his private phone and dialled a number from memory. It was answered on the second ring.
‘They let her out this morning,’ he said without introducing himself.
‘Find her and let me know where she’s living.’
‘I’m on it.’
Jeff hung up and continued his rather pleasant speculations about his forthcoming reunion with Lauren.
* * *
Nate Black bought two pints of lager and carried them across to a quiet corner table in the otherwise crowded city pub. He slid one across to Peter Read, a man who still owed him a few favours. Nate had gone out of his way a while back to help him catch some particularly vicious killers through carefully planted information in his newspaper column. Something told Nate that Read’s unexpected request for this meeting might signify payback time.
‘Thanks, Nate. Cheers.’
‘Cheers.’ Nate crossed one denim-clad leg over his opposite knee and leant back in his chair. ‘So,’ he said in a voice that still bore distinct traces of his native Colorado, ‘they’ve let Lauren Miller out early, have they?’
‘Yep, this morning. Thought you’d like to know, given your intense interest in her case.’
‘It’s just a shame she wouldn’t let me visit her inside. Perhaps I could have helped her.’
‘No one visited her the whole time she was banged up.’
Nate’s head shot up. ‘What, not even her family?’
‘Nope, she wouldn’t see them.’
‘What did she do in there all that time then? Do you know?’
‘Course I do.’
Nate chuckled. ‘Take that much interest in the entire prison population, do you, or do you reserve your attention for the good-looking ones?’
‘Do you want to know how she spent her time or not?’ Read asked calmly, not rising to the bait.
‘Sure, I’m interested, Peter, and you know it. Why else would you be telling me all this?’
‘Typical bloody journalist,’ complained Read, ‘always answering questions with questions.’
He took a sip of his lager, seeming to enjoy dragging things out. Nate, an experienced journalist used to worming information out of reluctant sources, sat back and savoured his beer, saying nothing. Eventually his patience was rewarded.
‘She worked in the library and studied for an A level in psychology. She passed it with an A-star, by the way. Other than that, she survived by acting as unofficial legal aid for some of the girls on remand.’
‘Clever!’ Nate nodded his admiration. ‘No one would give her the sort of grief you associate with those places if she made herself useful to the right people.’
‘I guess that’s how she looked upon it.’
‘But she didn’t appeal her own sentence?’
‘How could she when she pled guilty? She got off lightly with a six-year sentence, and she knew it, especially as she only served three years for insider trading that defrauded her stockbroker employers of over three million quid.’
‘If she did.’
‘Why plead guilty if she didn’t?’
‘To avoid a murder charge, perhaps?’ Nate grinned at his friend. ‘What do you think?’
‘She wasn’t charged with murder.’
‘That’s because she didn’t commit one.’
It was Read’s turn to smile. ‘You don’t know that, Nate. Just because she’s a looker, she’s got you thinking with your prick instead of that pea-sized brain of yours. Pretty girls from good backgrounds are just as capable of committing crimes as anyone else.’ He waggled his brows in a world-weary sort of way. ‘Believe me, I know of what I speak.’
‘I may not be able to prove that she didn’t kill anyone.’ Nate surprised himself with his fierce desire to protect the reputation of a woman he’d never met and perhaps never would. ‘But you sure as hell can’t prove that she did. If you could, you’d have charged her.’
‘Just because we didn’t have enough evidence to pin Drake’s murder on her, it doesn’t mean I don’t think she did it.’
‘Come on, Peter. I know you.’ Nate shook a thick lock of hair out of his eyes and flashed a smile at the contact who’d become a friend over the years. ‘If you really thought she was a killer, you would have moved heaven and earth to prove it.’
Read nodded with transparent reluctance. ‘Perhaps, but she still stole a shedload of money.’
‘They do that on Wall Street every day, and in your City of London, too. It’s called speculating, or profit-taking, in polite circles.’
‘Yeah, but they get prosecuted if they get caught speculating with money that ain’t theirs, or for using information that they’ve come by illegally in order to make a killing.’ He paused. ‘Pun intended.’
Nate took a long swallow of beer, disregarding the two women at a nearby table who were staring at him with their tongues almost hanging out. ‘What she did was wrong, but from what I’ve found out about her, I’m convinced she was coerced into it somehow. She isn’t the type to do something like that off her own bat.’
‘Good luck proving it.’
Nate shook his head, ignoring the interruption. ‘She wasn’t in it alone; I’d stake my reputation on it. Some clever bastard pulled her strings, and when it all went wrong, he left her to take the fall. My money’s on that sleaze-bag boss of hers, Jeff Williams. I’m convinced he’s in it up to his grubby little neck. The tosser’s far too smooth for my liking.’
‘Good luck trying to prove that, as well.’
‘Ah, so now I get it!’ A slow smile spread across Nate’s features. ‘I wondered why you were telling me all this. You’ve tried to prove it and failed, so you think yours truly, with the strength of the press at his disposal, might have a better shot at it.’
Read gave a noncommittal shrug. ‘Williams is whiter than white.’ Nate blew air through his lips and refrained from comment. ‘No known debts, top-notch credit rating, happy family life, spotless record with the firm, golf handicap in single figures, does the funny handshake bit.’ He shrugged for a second time. ‘What more do you want?’
‘Sounds too good to be true. Everyone has something to hide.’ Nate drained his pint. ‘So where’s she living, our Ms Miller, now that she’s out?’
‘Couldn’t possibly tell you that. It’s between her and her probation officer.’
‘Not with her parents, then?’ Read shook his head. ‘Thought not. I gather they haven’t actually been pillars of support. Too busy maintaining their social position and worrying about what they’ll say at the country club about their daughter’s rather dramatic fall from grace to bother looking out for the girl’s interests.’
‘You could say that.’
‘She’s hardly a kid, Nate. She’s twenty-eight, and she knew precisely what risks she took when she got involved with insider trading.’
‘All the more reason to wonder how she could have pulled it off without help.’
Read grunted his grudging agreement.
‘So why are you telling me all this? You know I want to talk to her, but if you won’t tell me where to find her, what chance do I… hey, hang on a minute.’ Nate smirked, offering a flash of perfect American dentistry for the women at the adjoining table to drool over. ‘Between her and her probation officer, you say?’ Read nodded, not quite managing to suppress a smile of his own. ‘And most people return to the area they know best when they get out. She wouldn’t want to be in the city after what happened to her there, and anyway, she’d never get another job in finance in a month of Sundays. So,’ – Nate paused, rubbing a chin adorned with five-o’clock shadow as he thought it through – ‘she’ll have gone back to her roots, which are in the New Forest.’ He looked enquiringly at Read, who maintained a neutral expression but didn’t actually deny it. ‘Which means her nearest probation service will be in Southampton, right?’
Read downed the last of his pint and stood up. ‘I never said a word, remember.’
‘Course you didn’t.’
Read waved over his shoulder as he pushed his way through the crowded bar and disappeared from view. Nate waited a moment and then followed him out the door, winking at the two gawping women as he passed their table. What contacts did he have in the Southampton probation service who’d be prepared to give him the inside track on Lauren Miller’s whereabouts?
* * *
Lauren huddled in the passenger seat of a nondescript Ford Fiesta and stared out the window until the drab prison buildings receded from view. She thought about the eclectic mix of people she’d come into contact with during her time inside. Women with pathetically sad reasons for finishing up incarcerated, almost always thanks to the machinations of the men in their lives. She watched the barren hedgerows hurtling past her window without really seeing them, idly wondering whose car it was that she was riding in. It didn’t belong to her parents, that was for sure. They wouldn’t normally be seen dead in such a downmarket vehicle and had obviously commandeered it for reasons of anonymity. Marian Miller would never live it down if she was seen hanging about outside a prison or, worse yet, was photographed by the paparazzi as she drove Lauren away. That would account for the sunglasses, presumably, even though it was a drab day and rain was forecast.
So this was freedom. Lauren had spent countless hours wondering how she’d feel when the day finally came. Now she knew. She felt nothing at all, other than an overwhelming desire for revenge. That had never gone away and was the only emotion she’d permitted herself throughout this entire terrifying ordeal. Sometimes she thought it was the only thing that had got her through it. The bitter taste of betrayal was as fresh on her tongue now as it had been on the day when her world fell apart over three years before. She could still recall the moment when it dawned on her that everything she’d done had been based on a pack of lies and that she’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book. She’d been used, exploited, and then left to carry the can alone.
Lauren grimaced. She’d been an idiot, but if nothing else, prison had taught her the value of patience. She wouldn’t rush into anything now but would let Williams sweat a bit first. He’d know she was out and would wonder what she intended to do about him. She’d served her time, couldn’t be tried for the same offence again, and as her life was in ruins anyway, she had nothing to lose by going after him. Williams was a controlling bastard, and he’d want to see her. He probably imagined that she was still the same naïve, trusting individual she’d once been and that he could bend her to his will with a pat on the head and a few carefully chosen endearments.
Dream on, you evil bastard!
‘It’s so lovely to have you back with us, darling.’ Her mother glanced at her and plastered on an artificial smile. ‘But you look so pale.’
‘Being locked up all day tends to do that to you, Mother.’
‘Yes, but still, you need to get some sun.’
‘Are we going on holiday, then?’ Lauren knew they weren’t – apart from anything else, she was on probation and wasn’t allowed to leave the country without permission – but she wanted to see how her mother would respond.
‘Well, no, darling, not right now because—’
‘Then where am I going to get any sunshine in the middle of March in bloody England?’
Her mother shuddered. ‘That place has made you coarse, Lauren.’
Lauren almost smiled as she watched her mother’s perfectly made-up face twist into an expression of distaste, but guilt immediately banished all thoughts of smiling from her head. She knew how badly she’d let her parents down – her father in particular. Everything she had done in her adult life had been in a vain attempt to secure his attention and approval. She had failed spectacularly and knew that they didn’t believe her version of events, even though they pretended to. That was one of the reasons why she hadn’t let them come to visit her. Not that they’d tried too hard; they were probably relieved when she’d said she didn’t want to see them.
‘Oh, he wanted to come, darling, really he did. He’s anxious to see you, but he had a meeting he simply couldn’t get out of.’
Lauren rolled her eyes. Some things never changed. ‘Never mind, I’ll see him at home later, presumably.’
Lauren watched her mother struggling with her acute embarrassment, temporarily forgetting that she was the cause of it. She’d never felt less connected to her than she did now but would give what few possessions she could still call her own if her mother would say, just once, that she truly believed she wasn’t solely responsible for what she’d done. They had never been close, but wasn’t blood supposed to be thicker than water? She had visited unnecessary troubles upon them as a family and ought to be glad they were still standing by her, but still…
Lauren returned her attention to the passing scenery as they sped down the motorway. Maybe it would be better if the connection was broken altogether. Prison, and the events that led to Lauren’s incarceration, had changed her – how could they not have? – and she would now never be the person she’d worked so hard to become in an effort to make an impression upon her ambitious parents.
‘Then where am I going?’ she asked, her face still turned away from her mother.
‘Well, the thing is—’ Her mother removed one hand from the steering wheel and wiped imaginary sweat from her brow. ‘The thing is, darling, since talk of your impending release found its way into the press, we’ve been besieged with reporters, and much as we’d like to have you there, you’d never be left in peace if you came home.’
‘Me or you, Mother?’
‘Don’t be like that, Lauren,’ she snapped. ‘I’m doing my best here.’
Lauren regretted her outburst. ‘It’s all right,’ she said, sighing. ‘I know you’ve paid the rent on a cottage in the forest for me. They told me that before I was released, and I’m grateful to you, really I am. I’d like to go straight there now if that’s okay with you.’
Her mother breathed an audible sigh of relief. ‘And so you shall, darling, if it’s what you really want. I expect you’re anxious to get back to normal.’
Normal? Her mother really did live in cloud cuckoo land. Lauren knew very well that her life would never be remotely normal ever again.
‘Yes,’ she said quietly, ‘that’s what I want.’
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